Uncovering A Mixology Secret: The Bartender's Handshake
Like many industries, members of the hospitality industry are a close-knit fraternity. The same applies to the world of mixology. In the cocktail community, barkeeps know their peers, stand alongside them, and at times even compete and create wonderful drinks. Their ambitions, their struggles, their experience of going through the world of barkeeping day in and out bonds them closer than we can imagine. It is this unspoken connection that is revered through the practice of the bartender's handshake.
What is a Bartender's Handshake?
Bartenders greet their peers and even close friends with the 'Bartender's Handshake', which is basically a shot of booze on the house. It is a nonverbal gesture that usually insiders in the world of mixology can decipher. Bartenders serve a shooter but the spirit can vary from person to person, bar to bar and even region to region. It is the bartender's hospitality that they remember their peers and friends' choice of poison, it is as though they know a little secret of theirs, and are happily willing to serve it to them.
Origin Of The Bartender's Handshake
It is believed the distribution of an Italian brand of fernet, a liqueur, acted as a catalyst for the creation of this sacred rite. US bartenders adopted this liqueur in 2000. While the spirit was available in the US for many years before 2000, it became popular when barkeeps favoured it over other drinks for their own consumption. Bartenders across the United States would have a shot of fernet or mix it with ginger beer. One needs a matured palate, an acquired taste to relish something like the fernet liqueur. So this spirit became the natural go-to shot for bartenders who have a discerning palate.
But today, the choice of spirit varies. Fernet happens to be the godfather of the bartender's handshake. It has been observed by mixology writers and journalists that barkeeps prefer spirits with bitter flavour, or something that is not run-of-the-mill (but will become massy and popular due to its status as the bartender's handshake).
In the US, Chicago barkeeps prefer bäsk liqueur. In Southern states, a shot of Angostura bitters is seen as a hat doff. Ferrari (equal parts fernet and Campari), Snaquiri are also favourites in America. In the United Kingdom, Tommy’s Margarita is the go-to booze for barkeeps. In Liverpool, Negroni does the work. Daiquiri also happens to be UK bartenders' top choice, along with tequila.
Every Rule (Ritual) Has An Exception
While the bartender's handshake is widely practised by industry insiders, there is a good section that doesn’t want to follow the norm. Some bartenders have also grown to disown the rite of the handshake.
There are no straightforward answers to why some barkeeps don't entertain this ritual in their bars. One of the reasons could be their dislike of waiting on another bartender — which seems plausible, as a doctor is always the worst patient. So a bartender is likely to make for a fussy drinker. Many barkeeps hand a premade drink to their peers instead of what the drinker actually fancies. Other possible reasons could be that since bartenders develop a no-nonsense attitude in their profession, they find the handshake corny and unnecessary.
And most importantly, the bartender's affinity towards the peer or patron is a key deciding factor. Based on the level of fondness, the bartender will see you entering and know what you will order and hand it to you even before you say a word.